When historians write about social or political transformation, they often make a distinction between “change from above” and “change from below.” Change from above comes directly from the leadership—Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal is a good example. Change from below is brought about by the efforts of regular people, whether directly from their actions or as a result of pressures brought to bear on those in power. The Civil Rights Movement is an especially compelling example of this. In researching the Jewish history of Louisville, Kentucky, I found a fascinating instance of “change from below” that literally came from above.
Keneseth Israel was created in 1926 from the merger of Louisville’s two oldest Orthodox congregations, both of which had been established by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. By the mid-20th century, a new generation of members had begun to chafe under the requirements of strict Orthodoxy. After World War II, the younger members of the congregation, especially its women, began to push for mixed-gender seating. In 1950, a group of female members, who normally sat in the synagogue balcony, held “sit-down strikes” in the downstairs men’s section during services. During one of these demonstrations, the police were called to restore order, and some members threatened a court injunction to stop the protests. Keneseth Israel’s Rabbi Benjamin Brilliant supported the traditionalists and refused to continue services while women were sitting in the men’s section.
Finally, the board sought to strike a compromise by allowing women to sit on the main floor of the sanctuary separated from the men by a mechitza, though this solution did not satisfy the protestors. Finally, after Rabbi Brilliant left Keneseth Israel in 1952, the congregation voted to institute mixed seating in the middle section of the sanctuary, with separate sections for men and women at the sides. Over the years, the congregation would continue to struggle with how to balance traditional Judaism with the demands of the modern world. Later, Keneseth Israel affiliated with the Conservative Movement and become fully egalitarian.
It’s quite remarkable that thirteen years before Betty Friedan published of The Feminine Mystique, which helped spark the second wave of American feminism, the women of Keneseth Israel decided to challenge the gender inequality of their congregation in such a direct way. Their effort is a perfect example of how most social change comes from pressure from below, even if it actually comes from the balcony!
Shopping for Passover items can be challenging in small Southern towns – and I’m sure there are others around the country who can relate to this as well. When you’re outside of a major metropolitan area, the quest for Passover foods (especially more than just matzah – although, as you’ll see, even that can get tricky…) can be a challenge.
Many grocery store managers are unfamiliar with “Kosher for Passover” merchandise, and they don’t want a lot of extra product on their shelves after the holiday. When they do stock up, though, it’s almost touching. I actually get excited when the Passover items make it to the special display in the grocery store.
What will they have this year? Any new dessert mixes, or new flavors of macaroons? Anything new to help fill the kids’ brown bag lunches for school– especially when one child is not particularly fond of matzah or the “Passover rolls” (you know, basically the same recipe as a matzah ball but baked, not boiled – mmm!).
What amuses me is that my local grocery store has a small “Asian section” – and somehow, that’s also the “Jewish section,” at least for part of the year. So, next to the udon noodles and fried rice mix, one can find the gefilte fish!
Of course, there’s also the fact that the stores don’t always get it right, even when they’re trying. I especially like picking up a box of matzah, suddenly available in the springtime, for Passover!– only to discover that the hechsher specifies “not kosher for Passover.”
Not very helpful, but it made me laugh. And when they do get it right, it feels even more special.
Have you had any “special” Passover shopping moments this year?
On a recent pit stop I made in a rural part of Tennessee, I found an unexpected statement. There, in the “middle-of-somewhere,” I came across a plastic toilet-paper dispenser with the words “The Jew Was Here” scrawled across it. Seeing this scrawl, a question barked at me.
But “ Why in the world…?!” was not the question I heard.
After all, when you see a simple message like that, why ask why? It seems human enough to want to leave a lasting mark on this world, so that when our finite lives come to their inescapable end, something of us will remain, something that says: “I was here. I mattered.”
However, a statement like “The Jew Was Here,” left on a roadside toilet-paper dispenser may not be the lasting message we desire. Those who come later will undoubtedly question: “What does it say about the person who was here, some person now gone?”
Does it say that his/her life was as fragile as single-ply or simply went round and round until it finally went down?
Clearly, not! And the reason I’m dead certain of this is because the entirety of anyone’s life cannot be captured in such a quick scribble as “I was here.” Rather, to adequately gain a glimpse of our existence, one must look to things more lasting. We must look to the children we teach, and the love we share, and the lessons we impart. We must look to our communities strengthened and our contributions made. Those places are where the impression of us remains, and will – God willing – continue to be seen for generations to come.
So, in the public restroom in Tennessee, the question I walked out of the stall with was not “why” but “what?”
What shall be the mark we will leave? Shall it be a scrawled graffiti scar, which time (and a little elbow-grease) will eventually erase? Or, will it be a work of art, celebrated throughout the ages?
That is up to you. After all, your life is a pen, moving over the living, breathing text known as the world. So, please, step right up and leave your mark, because you are here… and you matter!